Many projects are already late or at high risk of being behind, on the day they start. That is why project managers should recognize that their projects are at least yellow and they should work on turning them green early on in the process. Instead, project managers may shy away from reporting anything other than a green status at project kickoff. This could be because project managers do not know that their project is yellow or are not comfortable reporting a yellow project to stakeholders at the beginning of the project.
Why projects start yellow or red?
There are many reasons projects should be flagged as yellow or red at kickoff, including the following:
- Pressure to start as soon as possible. It can sometimes take stakeholders a long time to decide to move forward with a project, but once they do, they want it done promptly. So, project managers are often under a lot of pressure to start as soon as possible even if starting early comes with significant risks.
- Budget and timeline already set by sponsors. Most of the time, budget, and timeline for a project have already been decided based on top-down estimates defined during a sales cycle or business case definition. At this point, project managers have not had a chance to perform a thorough bottom-up estimation to determine the right budget and timeline.
- High-level scope. Scope is typically outlined at a very high-level in a few pages of a legal document (Statement of Work) or some bullet points in a few slides.
- Invalid assumptions. Stakeholders can sometimes make assumptions, during the sales cycle or business case definition that are subject to multiple interpretations. These assumptions may not have been validated by the people who will do the work or those who understand the implications of these assumptions.
- Resource availability. Due to the rush to get started, it is rare to have all of the resources needed to start the project in place at project kickoff. This includes the right team members, environment, materials, and tools.
- Team ramp-up and chemistry. It takes time for a group of people to get to know and trust each other, and have the right chemistry to become really productive. This is not always factored into the estimates, and it is assumed that everyone is as productive on day one as they are throughout the project.
What should project managers do?
- Scrutinize the plan. Review everything related to the project and spend time with the people who know what it takes to get the work done; to determine whether the plan and budget you have been handed are realistic. This should include a bottom-up estimation exercise of the activities required to complete the project deliverables. Additionally, an evaluation of the resources available to you, their capacity, skillset, experience, and maturity levels.
- Identify key issues and risks. Once you have scrutinized the plan, identify key risks and issues, and come up with ways to address them. This may include de-scoping some work, increasing the budget, re-baselining the schedule, modifying the process, postponing the start date, or changing the resource profiles.
- Be transparent with stakeholders. It is ok for a project not to be green. It is better to have the tough conversation early on than when it is too late or when the solutions are much more expensive to implement. Present your findings in a fact-based manner and share options to address any key risks or issues you have identified. What should be most important to everyone involved is delivering a working solution that the end-users will like, not hitting arbitrary timelines.
- Secure buy-in and commitment. First, make sure that you are convinced that this plan will work. As the project leader, if you are not convinced, no one else will be. Second, make sure that the project team understands and agrees with the plan, and is committed to doing what it takes to deliver on this plan. Finally, communicate the plan to your stakeholders and make sure they are on-board and committed to being there when you need their support because there will be bumps in the road.
- Communicate and confirm understanding. Even though most project managers would agree that communication is one of the most important factors for project success; it is easy to lose sight of this during project execution, while fighting daily fires. Also, effective communication is about listening and making sure the receiver understands the intended message. Make a conscious effort to listen to your team and stakeholders, empathize with their concerns and needs. Keep everyone apprised of how the project is going and the real outlook down the road as well as what needs to happen to stay on track. Moreover, do this in terms that each stakeholder can understand because they can often speak a different language.
Project managers are much better off accepting and dealing with the reality that their project is at risk early on and work on addressing it. Be proactive instead of making the assumption that things are fine and end up getting blindsided with major problems later on. Problems are easier and less expensive to deal with at the beginning rather than half-way through the project. While stakeholders may not like the bad news, in the beginning, they will understand and appreciate this down the road.